We recall with horror the attacks of September 11, 2001. We remember the widespread destruction and immense loss of life caused by Al-Qaeda. Needless to say, the terrorist attacks did much to heighten animosity between Christians and Muslims in the United States and around the world.
With the 10th Anniversary of September 11th looming before us, we look for new ways for Christians and Muslims to seek better relations with each other. As you may recall, St. Francis of Assisi gave us a good model for seeking better relations with the Muslim community. In the year 1219, while Christian Crusaders were engaged in bloody combat with Muslim forces, St. Francis traveled to Damietta, Egypt, where he met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the Muslim leader.
Convinced that violence and war marked the wrong path, Francis determined to engage in peaceful dialogue with the sultan and with the larger Muslim world. When he gained entrance to the sultan’s camp, he fearlessly tried to persuade his Muslim host that Christ was the true path to salvation.
Although the sultan was not about to change religions, he admired Francis’ enthusiasm and courage, and listened respectfully to him. Francis also showed a deep respect for his Muslim brother. The sultan offered gifts to Francis and saw to it that he was given safe passage back to the Christian camp. As they parted, according to one account, the sultan said to Francis, “Pray for me that God may reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to him.”
Franciscan scholars find evidence that Francis had truly entered into a spirit of dialogue with the sultan and was personally open to the positive values present in the Muslim religion and culture. During Francis’ stay in Egypt and neighboring parts of the Muslim world, various aspects of the Muslim faith inspired the friar.
For example, he could not have missed the importance Muslims give to prayer. Five times a day, from the top of the minaret, the muezzin publicly invites the faithful to prayer. Apparently, this impressed Francis profoundly. Some time after Francis returned to Italy, he wrote his “Letter to the Rulers of the People,” in which Francis instructs them, “See to it that God is held in great reverence among your subjects: Every morning, at a signal given by a herald or in some other way, praise and thanks should be given to the Lord God almighty by the people.”
Nor could Francis have missed the way Muslims prostrated themselves or bowed to the ground in reverence to the Almighty. In his “Letter to a General Chapter,” he writes, “At the sound of God’s name, you should fall to the ground and adore him with fear and reverence.” The reason friars are sent all over the world, he adds, is to “bear witness…that there is no other almighty God besides him,” an expression amazingly similar to the Muslims’ central formula of faith: “There is no god but God!”
St. Francis’ spirit still speaks to us today. His sincere act of peacemaking with the sultan might have had little influence upon the fierce hostilities between the Christians and Muslims in the 13th century. But the story continues to glow with meaning and encourages others of like spirit to struggle for a more peaceful world.
The staff of St. Anthony Messenger Press has published an e-book, Franciscan Voices on 9/11, to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. More of my account of Francis of Assisi’s meeting with the Sultan—and Francis’ peacemaking attitudes—is only one of the chapters that make up this wide-ranging e-book. Among other contributors are Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., Joseph Nangle, O.F.M., Patricia Normile, S.F.O., Jimmy Zammit, O.F.M., and Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.
Franciscan Voices on 9/11 is available for Kindle for $2.99 and can be found here.